Saturday, June 30, 2012

Did Fort Vancouver blacksmiths make beaver traps?

To most of the volunteers in the Fort Vancouver blacksmith shop, the answer is obvious: Of course they made beaver traps. It was their stock in trade. Any visitor to the smithy (that term refers to the building, not to the person who works there) can touch a beaver trap that was made in the shop by reenactors, see how it works, and hear the story of how iron bar stock imported from England was transformed into traps for distribution to the Company trapping brigades and traded to European-descended and native trappers.
            As with many things it turns out to be a little more complicated. Evidence suggests that early in Hudson's Bay Company's time at  Fort Vancouver all or most traps were probably made on site, in the blacksmith shop. As time went on, and clearly by the 1840s, more traps, and perhaps most, were made in factories in England and shipped to Fort Vancouver to be traded directly or distributed to Company trapping brigades.  Making beaver traps on site probably continued, but may have given way increasingly over time to importing them from England ready to be used. There was surely plenty to keep blacksmiths busy supporting construction projects, the farming and sawmill operations, ship repair, and similar activities.
In order to determine what to order on annual supply ships the HBC conducted inventories of the stock on hand in the Spring of each year. Clerks were careful to list goods imported from Europe separate from country made articles produced on site in Columbia District workshops. The inventory for 1832 listed 36 beaver traps among the country made items on hand in the Indian Trade Shop(1) at Fort Vancouver, valued at 11 shillings each.(2) In the inventory for 1841 the list of country made items included “24 beaver traps.” Among the inventory of imported goods on hand at Fort Vancouver in Spring 1843 were “64 beaver traps complete with chains.” The inventory of country made items on hand in Spring 1844 listed “21 beaver traps.” Among the imported goods on hand in the Fort Vancouver Indian Trade Shop in the Spring of 1844 were “43 beaver traps complete with chains.”(3) Are we confused yet?
     One thing seems clear: by the 1840s both country made and imported traps were commonly in use.
The inventories are useful, but limited: They list stock on hand, but not the quantities imported from England in any given year, nor the amounts sold or traded in any given year. But there is a full listing available of “Goods shipped from London aboard the Barque Brothers and received at fort Vancouver in 1844 for the Columbia Department Outfit 1845.”(4) For anyone interested in the material culture and economic history of Fort Vancouver, it is an amazing document, listing thousands of individual items in that single shipment, along with the quantity, per unit cost to the Company, and the total value of each item group. I’ll be mining it for other blogposts in the future, but for now I’m looking at page 1,408. Between 41 ¾ dozen “assorted children’s toys” and 1/2 dozen “japanned tin snuffer trays” I see 700 beaver traps without springs @ 2 shillings 9 pence per unit, total cost £96.5.0; followed by 200 pairs of springs for beaver traps @ 2 shillings 11 pence per pair, total cost £11.13.4. It’s hard to tell how many new traps needed to be acquired in the Columbia district in any given year, but that sounds like a lot of beaver traps. If one trapper needed, say, 7 traps for his yearly outfit, then 100 trappers could be equipped from that single shipment from English factories in 1844.
What about the cost of these items so central to HBC’s fur trading corporate identity? The 11 shillings for a country made trap in 1832 compares to 5 shillings 8 pence for a factory made trap in 1844 (combining the cost of a pair of springs and the cost of the trap without springs). For any business that was focused on the bottom line, the choice of suppliers would have been obvious.
(1) Accounts for the Fort Vancouver Indian Trade Shop, which included branches at Ft. George (the former Ft. Astoria abandonded by HBC in 1825 but reopened in 1829) and Ft. Umpqua (established in 1832) were kept separate from accounts for Fort Vancouver Depot. We might think of the Depot as the regional distribution and collection center for the entire Columbia District while the Indian Trade Shop, also located at Fort Vancouver, was the retail trading post for the lower Columbia, Willamette Valley, and southwestern Oregon.

(2) Compare this to the trade value of one prime beaver pelt in 1837 of 10 shillings, reported in the blogpost entitled “How much was a beaver pelt worth?” below. The 1832 inventory also lists country made beaver traps on hand at Ft. Langley, Ft. Nez Perce, and other interior posts, at the same per-unit cost. It is included in “Account Books 1832-34," HBC Archives B.223/d/16-40, which is on microfilm reel IM 617 in the Fort Vancouver NHS Library.

(3) Extracts from these inventories are in John A. Hussey, Fort Vancouver Historic Structures Report, vol. 2, Chapter 2.

(4) The full list of the 1844 shipment is in Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976), pp. 1,384-1,410. In his main text (p. 1,115) Ross provides archaeological evidence that traps and trap parts were both country made and imported, and provides illustrations of artifacts showing both origins, pp. 1,120-1,137. But Ross does not comment on a possible shift from one to the other source over time. If Archaeological evidence indicates that country made traps were more common than imported traps, that could be the result of the origin of most of the archaeological evidence: the site of the blacksmith shop where country made traps were actually made. We might expect that most imported traps went from supply ships to trading posts to beaver ponds on mountain streams, bypassing the blacksmith shop--and the archaeological record--altogether.

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